Risky business

For the past few years, I’ve been writing my second memoir. It’s about falling in love and marrying in old age.

John was married to my life-long friend Marcia for almost fifty years. Some time after her death, their children invited me to his seventieth birthday. Exactly a year after the birthday celebration, we married.

We didn’t just marry like a good conforming aged couple should, surrounded by our children and grandchildren. On a Monday morning in May, 2007, we eloped. We celebrated our wedding in spectacular fashion with Nuptial Mass, complete with music, flowers and candles, in my parish church – empty except for us and our four witnesses.

Signing the register with Fr Simons
Signing the register with Fr Simons


In honour of our wedding day, Father Trevor Simons, my parish priest and the celebrant of our Mass and marriage, wore the gold-fabric vestments he usually reserved for high feast-days . He acted as if John and I were starry-eyed twenty-some-things, embarking on our first marriage.

At the airport that evening, before we flew to Paris at the beginning of our honeymoon in France, we posted a pile of carefully-crafted cards to our families and friends. The cards announced that John and I had married that morning and we would see them again in a couple of months’ time.

Place de Voges, Paris, two days later
Place de Voges, Paris, two days later

Little did we dream of the storm that would erupt in some quarters when those letters arrived.

My new memoir is about our courtship and marriage in the last third of life, and about the aftermath of our decision, complicated by family and the reality that he had experienced a long and happy previous marriage and I had lived alone and celibate for the previous thirty years following a divorce.

Four months ago, after working on my story for some years, I decided, as one does, that it was finished. At any rate, I was finished with it and wanted to move on. I bundled it off to a publisher.

As anyone who has done it will well understand, sending a tender new manuscript out into the world is laden with the terrible twin emotions of fear and hope.

There is fear because of the high possibility of rejection of one’s baby.  Like new parents, writers find it difficult to admit their babies aren’t perfect. Parents quickly discover that the infant for whom they had so longed and hoped has a tendency to leak at both ends, and to sing out of tune, especially at three o’clock in the morning, when the parents might prefer to sleep rather than attend to the needs of the small, demanding person who has taken up residence with them.

Writers also often discover that their manuscript is not perfect; no one loves their baby as much as they do.

On the other hand there is hope because there is also the possibility, however slim, that some discerning reader will love the manuscript so much they will convince a publisher that it is a must-buy, destined for the best-seller lists in the near future.

I sent my manuscript to a publisher I know and trust, who had recently taken up a position with a different publishing company from the one she had worked with previously. She said she liked my writing and the story. But she added,

‘It doesn’t fit with our list. Perhaps you could try…’

The second publisher liked the first 5000 words I sent him well enough to ask to see the complete manuscript. He has had my baby for a couple of months and he let me know me last week that it is still under consideration.

If writing a story is the gestation period, waiting to hear about its fate it is like a long, long labour. Little wonder I am anxious and impatient – an understatement if you listen to my husband.

Meanwhile, I haven’t settled down to write anything new. A writer who is waiting to hear from a publisher would be bad enough. But a writer who is waiting, and at the same time not writing, is decidedly – messy. Writers write. That’s what they do. When they stop, the consequences can be dire. They clean the pantry, bathroom cupboards and the top shelves of the wardrobe in the guest room. They fidget. Moan. Complain. Find fault. Start arguments.

Now it’s definitely time for me to engage with a new writing project. Dusting off old, half-forgotten, unpublished novels won’t do – I’ve tried that. A blog is good – I’ve tried that too – but it isn’t enough. The next project needs to be meaty, research-based and satisfying.

As the author Natasha Lester pointed out in a blog post recently, at 500 words a day it takes just under six months to write a book of 80 000 words. I can probably write 500 words most days if I put my mind to it.

Please stay tuned for the next instalment of my writing journey. You will read it here.


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Mists and quinces

Autumn in Blaye, near Bordeaux in  France
Autumn in Blaye, near Bordeaux in France

I owe a debt of gratitude for my love of autumn to Sr. Mary Theophane, the nun who taught me most school subjects in years 8, 9 and 10, way back in the mists of time during the early 1950s.

Fanny, as we girls called her behind her back, was a woman who could turn her hand to teaching any subject that her superiors nominated. From my first day in her classroom as a twelve-year-old, I adored her. In the next three decisive years I  absorbed the knowledge, attitudes and skills that she bestowed generously on her students. At the same time she encouraged me question everything and to think for myself.

Not everyone had the same rich experience of being taught by nuns as I did, but the sisters were good to me and for me. Sr. Theophane and the others were quintessential feminists. They imparted  an understanding that women can do anything to which they set their minds.

Although the subject of John Keats’s romantic ‘Ode to Autumn’ bears little resemblance to an autumn in Perth, Western Australia, each year at this time I revisit the poem and the warm memories it evokes of my dear teacher, with her love of language and her enthusiasm (one of many) for poetry.

Autumn in Perth has few distinct markers. There are seldom mists here, and mellow fruitfulness appears a bit thin. Instead, in this city, we know it’s autumn when, after months of the searing heat of summer, one morning we sense it’s time to put a blanket on the bed; the day-time temperatures have dropped below the 30 degree Celsius mark; the roses that have been quiet in the heat of summer are blooming voluptuously again; in the shops, new season apples are crisp and even a little tart.

One of my own special markers of autumn is that, if you know where to find them, quinces appear. Until the last few years, they haven’t been readily available in the shops. In my childhood, there was a quince tree in our garden and my mother picked the fruit and made ruby-red jelly, and we ate stewed quinces until we were bored with them. Years later, I used to visit a quince and apple orchard in Dwellingup, where I often camped by the Murray River with my children and, later, grandchildren.


This week, a stack of quinces at $4.99 a kilo confronted me in a local fruit shop. Surely that was too good to be true? I bought five, not sure what I’d do with them. Make jam, I thought, my mother’s jelly, perhaps. Or I’d simply stew them. The idea of making jam appealed to my housewifely heart, but the jars of marmalade (two varieties) from last winter still sit in the pantry, and we’ve hardly touched the green tomato chutney created from a glut of tomatoes that didn’t seem to ripen. It turned out later that they were Green Zebra variety that we’d planted by accident. They would have been perfect in salads in spite of their odd appearance.

Idling at the computer (as I often do) I checked for stewed quince recipes in case my old, well-tested one had been superseded, and found David Lebovitz’s site, living the sweet life in Paris  with, among many other lovely posts, his recipes not only for rosy poached quinces that judging by the photographs lived up to their name, but also for a quince tarte tatin. The poached quince recipe sounded fabulous and I was keen to try the tarte, too.

          Her hands
Her hands
       His hands
His hands














But there was a problem. My arthritic right hand, the one the physiotherapist has been working on in an attempt to redefine its claw-like shape, refused to hold a knife that would do the job of cutting and coring the fruit, and the hard knobbly fruit resisted all my attempts. In the end I had to call in some big guns. The man of the house was happy to oblige, and cheerfully hacked away at the fruit until I was satisfied. Even though his hands are older than mine, they seem to work better these days.

      The finished product
The finished product

The result of our labours was not exactly what I expected. I followed the French rosy-poached-quince recipe implicitly, adding honey and lemon and wine, but they ended up looking little like the finished fruit in the recipe. Instead, mine were cooked until some bits disintegrated; and the liquid didn’t reduce as it was supposed to. In spite of how they looked, they tasted delicious.

 Dessert for two

Dessert for two

It is still autumn, and there are still quinces in the shops. Perhaps this week I will make some jam after all – and we can eat the chilled fruit later in the day, coated in the thick red jelly as I remember from my mother’s simple recipe –  and other years.


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Easter 2014

For the Catholic Church, the feast of Easter is the most important event in the liturgical calendar.

While the Christmas story of the baby Jesus born of humble parents in a stable in Bethlehem has a certain readily accessible charm, the Easter story of a Man who rises from the dead after being crucified like a common criminal because He has preached a message of love is considerably harder to understand.

But for those of us who believe, Easter is so important that it is celebrated, not just on Easter Sunday, but for eight days from Easter Sunday to the following Sunday.

Lent is the lead-up time to those liturgies that commemorate the events of the first Easter. Traditionally the forty days of Lent are a time of prayer, fasting and alms-giving. Catholic children are encouraged to ‘give-up’ something for Lent – lollies, chocolate, dessert.

As Catholics mature, and with it, hopefully, their faith, most of us take Lenten observances seriously. We begin on Ash Wednesday with good intentions. But I must admit, most years I expect to fail in much the same way as I find it hard to keep New Year resolutions.

Working on the idea that it is easier to take up something new as a way to break old habits, this year I enrolled in an eight-week course on St. John’s Gospel at the Maranatha Institute of Faith Education in Doubleview as part of my Lenten commitment in preparation for Easter.

The course facilitator, Ms Jan O’Connor, impressed and delighted me with her ability to impart knowledge about, and understanding of, the fourth Gospel, which scholars believe was written about a hundred years after the death of Christ, and which builds on the Gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke. My Maranatha experience ensured that my appreciation of the Gospel of John increased and my Lent was far richer than it would otherwise have been.

Even in the most humble suburban church, the solemn liturgies around Easter are full of drama and beauty.

St Dominic's Church, Innaloo
St Dominic’s Church, Innaloo

John and I took part in the Easter Triduum in our parish church – the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper with the washing of the feet of a representative group of parishioners by the parish priest, followed by Mass on Holy Thursday; the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday; and of course, the solemn, joyful Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, with the Blessing of a New Fire, Lighting of the Paschal Candle, readings from the Old Testament, renewal of Baptismal promises and Mass to celebrate the Resurrection.

Paschal Candle as a priest celebrates Mass
Paschal Candle as a priest celebrates Mass

The Catholic Church in Australia and elsewhere has much for which to answer. Years of abuse inflicted at the hands of priests and religious have left thousands of suffering victims for whom there can be no resolution. Their situation is made even worse because of the failure of those in authority to acknowledge the crimes committed against them, and even, in some cases, the protection of criminals and the cover-up of their crimes.

Many Catholics suffer as a result. Even if we ourselves were not abused, we suffer for the pain inflicted on our abused brothers and sisters. We suffer from our loss of trust in the criminal men and women who inflicted such suffering. And we suffer from the loss of integrity of the whole Church.

In spite of all the suffering, the pews in the simple parish church of St. Dominic in Innaloo and, according to the media, many other churches throughout the nation, were filled this Easter with worshippers of all Christian denominations, full of joy and hope in the Resurrection.

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Coffee adds value

A coffee shop in the vicinity of residential property for sale increases the value of the property by tens of thousands of dollars, according to an article in the real estate section of the West Australian Newspaper the other morning. That really struck a chord.

Coffee beans 2

Coffee shops serve many functions. They’re places to nurture old friendships and consolidate new ones; discuss the world and how to put it right; share our sorrows and joys with people we love; meet  book club friends; enjoy solitary indulgences; delight our senses with the aromas of good coffee and freshly baked goodies; hide ourselves away; seek solace when the world seems too tough; quench a thirst or satisfy caffeine desires; read a novel or a memoir or textbook; read glossy magazines and newspapers that we haven’t paid for; and shelter from the rain, the wind and the sun.

And, of course, cafes are where some people write.

We drank coffee in one of these cafes beside the Canal du Midi in Agde in the south of France
We drank coffee in one of these cafes beside the Canal du Midi in Agde in the south of France

Cafes in new cities and towns are especially good for simply sitting in comfort and watching the world go by, absorbing the sights and sounds and odours of the new, the unfamiliar and the unexpected.  Sometimes in a strange place there’s the added bonus of engaging with people from another culture and the opportunity to demonstrate one’s aptitude, or at least willingness to try, a language other than English as we order coffee.

The simply named Coffee Pot in Wellington Street was first coffee shop I remember. Close to Royal Perth Hospital where I trained as a nurse in the late 1950s, the Coffee Pot seemed the height of sophistication to my sheltered, seventeen-year-old self. Soft, low lounge seats, thick carpet, dim lights augmented with candles, and jazz playing softly on a stereogram in a corner rendered my favourite Vienna coffee, served by an elegant French couple, even more exquisite.

My parents thought my coffee-drinking in general, and the Coffee Pot in particular, were the height of decadence. But they never checked it out and I chose not to disillusion them. Visiting the Coffee Pot with other nurses after a Saturday evening shift that finished at 10.00 p.m. seemed like a minor rebellion, especially as we were all expected to be tucked up in bed on the second floor verandah in the nurses’ quarters by midnight.

Writers seem to have a special affinity for coffee shops. Or perhaps it is the other way around.Think Hemingway, de Beauvoir, Sartre, de Balzac for starters… many of my current writerly friends and acquaintances confess to enjoying regular writing sessions with their lap tops in their local cafes.

The first, handwritten draft of my own memoir, Other People’s Country, took shape in several coffee shops to which I could walk from my house in Bayswater. Walking stimulated creative ideas, and the caffeine in the bitter drink seemed to concentrate my thoughts.

Sitting in a corner, or sometimes in the spring or autumn sunshine on the pavement outside, I sipped coffee and scribbled, almost oblivious to my surroundings and the people around. At home, ‘thinking’ breaks were punctuated by coffee. I feel sure that coffee added value to my writing.

Coffee time
Coffee time

The culture shock I experienced when I left Bayswater a few years ago and moved to Scarborough, where a few shops by the beach boasted loud music, sandy-footed surfers and tourists, came as a major surprise.

There has been a  breakthrough in Doubleview, where I now live. Although I don’t plan to move from here anytime soon, so that property values won’t affect me, I’m sure that with the event of new coffee shops they have soared, as the journalist predicted. The cafes have certainly added a new dimension to our lifestyle.

Three years ago, there were no coffee shops within walking distance of home. But since then at least seven of them have have emerged, in unlikely places in shopping strips at both ends of our street and further along Scarborough Beach Road to the west, as well as one in St Brigid’s Terrace. All of the shops are trading well.Two open at 6.00 a.m., others later and, by morning tea-time, seating is at a premium.

I’m still checking out and making up my mind which one I’ll adopt as ‘mine’ within the next week or two, when I finally get down to the serious business of beginning my next book.

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